San Diego Union Tribune

March 30, 2007

Bill could delay lifting of ban on Mexican truck travel

Rep. Hunter wants background checks

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Legislation introduced in Congress yesterday could delay the Bush administration's plan to lift a longstanding ban on Mexican truck travel throughout the United States.

 

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A pilot program to allow some Mexican truckers into the United States had been scheduled to begin next month.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, an opponent of the plan, introduced one of the bills, which would allow police to gain access to the same kind of criminal background information on Mexican truckers as they can pull up on American drivers.

Another bill introduced yesterday would require the Department of Transportation to seek public comment on the pilot program before it is launched and would limit the program to one year.

Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., sponsored the bill, which has the support of House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn.

Oberstar is not supporting Hunter's bill and has not said if he will allow it to get a hearing in committee.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials had wanted to launch the pilot program by the end of April, allowing 100 Mexican trucking companies to haul cargo throughout the United States. Under the program, U.S. inspectors would visit trucking operations in Mexico to examine their trucks, books and safety records.

While Mexican truckers from across the U.S.-Mexico border region would be enrolled in the pilot program, 500 of the 800 Mexican companies that previously applied for access are from Baja California.

Current rules allow Mexican truck drivers to go no farther than 25 miles inside the country. In San Diego County, many drivers transfer their loads to U.S. operators for delivery to the U.S. interior. Some Mexican fleet owners have operations in both countries.

The pilot program could lead to a complete lifting of the ban.

The plan to open the borders to Mexican trucks dates back to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which included a provision allowing U.S., Mexican and Canadian truckers to travel freely throughout the three countries.

Concerns about the safety of Mexican trucks and pressure from Congress have blocked Mexican truckers from access to U.S. markets since the provision was scheduled to go into effect in 1995.

Hunter said his bill would require Mexican truckers to meet the same standards as American truckers.

One of the most important provisions, he said, would require the federal government to certify that when a Mexican trucker is pulled over, police could pull up the same kind of background information on the Mexican as they could on an American driver. He said that should include criminal violations, such as drug convictions.

He said the database used by Mexican authorities to verify a driver's identification, driving record and criminal history should be equivalent to that used in the United States.

Currently, U.S. law does not require a criminal background check for U.S. truck drivers unless they want to be certified to haul hazardous materials.

Police typically can check any driver's traffic record and check for outstanding criminal warrants. A complete criminal records examination generally takes some time.

The Bush administration insists it has put in place sufficient safeguards for the pilot program.

In a statement in reaction to Hunter's bill, the Department of Transportation said the program “will bring real benefits and real dollars to the American economy while maintaining all U.S. safety and security standards.”

The statement added that the agency “is committed to moving forward with this program and will continue to work with members of Congress to address their concerns.”

Officials at the Mexican embassy also expressed support for the program.

“We want to reiterate that Mexican carriers operating in the U.S., like any U.S. carrier, will comply with all statutory and regulatory requirements in terms of safety and security of the vehicles and their drivers,” an embassy spokesman said.

Union-Tribune research contributed to this report.

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